Reviews

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IMG_6085LAST LETTER FROM INSTANBUL – Lucy Foley

NO SPOILERS

Last night over dinner, I found myself retelling small incidents and observations from this book to my husband, so clearly, in spite of my initial reservations and prejudged dislike, Last Letter from Istanbul has made an impression on me.

During the first world war, Istanbul is occupied by allied forces.  Nur, an Ottoman woman, has taken into her care an orphaned Armenian boy and when he becomes dangerously ill she takes him to the military hospital. The hospital is in her former family home, where George, an English doctor treats him for malaria.  And of course, as with all good tales they reluctantly fall in love…but their people are enemies.

That is enough plot outline as any more will become a spoiler but there is plenty in the back stories of the characters to provide more insight and interest.  It is a tale of gradual respect which grows to become a love that cannot be,  but is not a soppy romance.  It touches a little on the horrors of war and the damage caused to people and the reasons why the love affair is impossible.

The author’s writing style takes a little getting used to. A large amount of very short chapters, each from a specific character’s perspective, skipping back and forth in time and place.  A vast amount of incredibly short sentences, some only four or five words long and the most prolific use of the colon I have ever come across!  At times it reads like a play, with stage direction and the setting of scenes but once you overlook the awkward, erratic punctuation there are moments of absolute beauty and the use of the present tense is, as always, very evocative. Pomegranate sales will soar!

Why Lucy Foley chose this setting, this city in particular, I do not know. The book displays no personal affection nor knowledge of the city and its depiction lacks intimacy.  As a reader, I did not feel I was there and I did not feel any sense of shared experience.  I would have liked more journalistic detail about the culture and more about how the occupation impacted on the citizens on a personal level and the country as a whole; I like to learn as I read and this book did not tell me anything I did not already know…but then that would be a whole different book.  There is just enough here to make sense of the plot, and if that is all you seek, then this book will please and possibly delight you. There are a couple of “Heart in mouth”, “Hold your breath” and  “Quick, quick turn the page…” moments.

One big problem for me is the cover and the prejudice it elicited in me.  I would never normally pick up a book with such a jacket picture and had already decided I would not enjoy it and I think this clouded my opinion for the first half; I believe I looked for reasons to dislike it.  I did think, in these days of marketing genius, that we really can judge a book by its cover. I was wrong.

Whilst it is not a book I would have chosen for myself, I am glad to have read it. I love The Boy and the man he becomes in spite of or because of the situation. It is not the last letter which remains me but his last act.

 

30710191_1657322387688059_6642599765773123584_oA GRAND OLD TIME – Judy Leigh

NO SPOILERS

Since losing her husband, Jim, seventy-five year old Evie Gallagher has lived at Sheldon Lodge, a care home for the elderly. After a routine, excruciating visit from her son and his wife, she walks out, re-invents herself and rediscovers her joy for living, but then, because the tag line on the cover suggests this is “Brilliantly funny, emotional and uplifting!” you wouldn’t expect anything else, would you? So, whilst this is not my preferred genre, I was hoping for some humour, if not the laugh out loud type then at least a little chortle or two, perhaps some dry wit and, of course, a happy ending.

After a handful of chapters it occurred to me that this book is written in the style of a short story which one might read in a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room, something quick and easy, not too deep, just a little character insight and no author observation. It is simply a chronologically written story in the “then it was now” style. After a couple more chapters I read the blurb about the author, Judy Leigh, and discovered she has indeed written several stories for magazines and this is her first novel. So, as an easy going, not too taxing, extended magazine story to pack for a holiday, this will please many. You can pick it up and put it down between sips of something cool by the pool and never lose the thread. The chapters are short which always helps when needing a break to attract the waiter! (I also learnt she is a fellow vegan and will be looking up her vegan blog online.)

As much as possible, I try, always, to look at things from all points of view. Just because something is not to my taste, does not mean it’s not good and others will not love it. Wagner sets my teeth on edge but I do marvel at his skill and I know people who cannot get through the day without hearing his work. But for me, Judy Leigh is no Wagner and a grand old time I did not have.

I could never put together enough sentences to produce a novel which is why I don’t write and I admire anyone who has the patience to do so. But I do read so I feel I have some qualification in expressing an opinion and this book is just not for me. I found it dull and predictable, without enough humour or style to compensate. At the beginning of each chapter I knew exactly where it was leading. I can honestly say there was not a single surprise in the entire book. The improbability of the story (somehow it doesn’t seem complex enough to be a plot) was too ridiculous for me…not so much the getting from the start to the finish, but the “lucky that happened” moments on the way.

For some, as a feel good distraction it could work and if you do like this genre, don’t dismiss it. For me, I kept thinking I was wasting valuable reading time but as I say, not my preferred genre and it has not converted me.

 

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ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE – Gail Honeyman

NO SPOILERS

Eleanor Oliphant is not just completely fine…Eleanor Oliphant is completely absorbing.

A dependable office worker, reliable and mostly inconspicuous, Eleanor spends her evenings and weekends sticking to a strict diet of pasta and vodka, reading, listening to the radio…and taking a weekly telephone call from Mummy. And, of course, there is a dark secret and she is far from fine. But there is so much more to this book.

Eleanor is markedly lacking in social skills, taking everything at its literal meaning, which made me wonder why the rest of us tend not to and how much simpler life would be if we did. It is, after all, others who disrupt and complicate her routine. But through a burgeoning friendship at work and a misguided love she begins to acquire an understanding of and liking for human interaction. She approaches social occasions as projects to be researched, learnt and successfully accomplished, discovering as she does so that some aspects are actually enjoyable…try not to smile next time you hear The Village People. She slowly realises that there could be more to life than accounts payable, even for Eleanor, no matter what Mummy says and her acceptance that change is possible and empathy not beyond her, leads to…well, no spoilers here!

I generally like quite “high brow” reading, something which requires a good deal of thought but now and then I like an easier read, although I am usually put off because often, an easy read is too easy and too simply written. This is neither but nevertheless this is a brilliant, easy read.

Throughout the book the voice and language are Eleanor’s, the perception is Eleanor’s. All are a little quirky, pedantic and painfully precise, displaying a naïveté which I found charming and an awkwardness which is awkward only to others. The correctness of phrase, Eleanor’s own words, does not hamper the flow of reading, but presents her as the somewhat reserved, inhibited, faltering woman that she is when out of her familiar and regimented comfort zone. I liked the style but then I liked Eleanor, very much.

There are quite a few laugh out loud moments and many moments of gentle, often dark (though not to Eleanor) humour and many, many moments of pathos.

This book requires some thought and involvement and belief so will satisfy those who like to think as they read. It’s not soppy, it’s not florid and it’s not predictable. It is funny, it is moving and it will perhaps make you see others differently, especially those who don’t fit in so readily. Everybody has a story, we all have something not visible at first glance and we are all moulded by something which has gone before…but moulds can be broken.

This is Gail Honeyman’s first novel and for me, what makes it so great is not the plot, which frankly is nothing new, but her creation of Eleanor, who is so believable that I am convinced she is the real author. Whilst I look forward to the next book, it is really Eleanor’s voice I look forward to hearing again, such was my fascination with this unfortunate, likeable soul and such is my hope of once again sharing a cheese scone with her.

 

 

INTO THIN AIR – Jon Krakauer

I was sent this as a gift and after two recommendations I was expecting a “Boys’ Own” high action adventure (not my type of thing but I had promised to read it) but that’s not what it is at all. It wasn’t a riveting read from the disaster point of view but a well detailed account of the whole “Everest for paying guests” package, which was the original brief.

I was shocked at the poor health of many of the climbers and the lack of preparation. I thought to attempt a climb to the summit, even a guided, assisted climb, top health would be compulsory. I can’t help thinking lives were lost because people who were not fit to climb were on the mountain. And there were several small errors of judgement which led to big failures. (This all reminds me of Scott’s errors.) I’m no climbing expert but neither were many of the climbers…what on earth were they doing there?

I like the author’s style…not literary (not what I want for this kind of account) and not dumbed down (not what I want on any account!). Not a book I would normally pick up but it was a welcome easy change, much needed during the bad chemo days.

 

 

 THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD – Apsley Cherry-Garrard

So far I have read only Cherry-Garrard’s introduction to this but, oh my! I guess like many people I really only had a vague knowledge of Scott’s fatal South Pole trek, I had no idea about the disasters which befell the other parties on various scientific, natural history and depot laying journeys during the 1911  expedition. I know I’m going to enjoy reading this and look forward to posting more about it.

I am enjoying this though not finding as much time to read it as I would like. What would be useful is one map showing everything. I often lose track of who’s gone where and who’s left at which hut or camp and it takes looking at more than one map in more than one place in the book to get it straight in my head.

Mr Cherry-Garrard has now set off for Cape Crozier and the Emperor penguins. It still seems to me that no-one, not the men, the dogs nor the ponies were ever going to be fit enough to make it to the South Pole and back; and the supplies were woefully lacking and they all knew it. I get the impression Scott, knowing Amundsen was heading for the Pole was going for it no matter what. I may be doing him an injustice so I shall read a couple more people’s accounts then Ranulph Feinnes’ book, which praises Scott, then still be undecided…


JOURNALS – SCOTT’S LAST EXPEDITION Ed. Max Jones

I finished Scott’s Journal at 2.00am in bed this morning. I got up at 7.00 and read all the appendices…that’s how much I loved it!

The journal was written as a record and clearly with a view to publication yet it still possesses an intimacy which sometimes made me feel as if I was prying. There are entries which are less than riveting (temperature and wind direction not being my thing, though I did understand the significance) but mostly the entries are fascinating.

I know there are those who think Scott was to blame for the deaths and I know there are others who think he did all he could. I’m no expert but I think he did the best he could given the  result of his poor preparations and planning. The conditions were worse than expected and luck was in short supply but maybe with enough fuel (should have changed those seals!) and enough snow shoes for the ponies (should have brought them all!) these could have been overcome. 

From a scientific point of view the expedition was invaluable; from a human point of view it was a terrible waste. I’m about to read “Captain Scott” by Ranulph Fiennes who I believe to be sympathetic towards Scott, so maybe I’ll change my mind.

EDIT: The more I read, the more I think Scott made some very ill-judged decisions. I’m hoping as I read yet more, I may understand why.

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